Tuesday, 31 May 2022 00:00

Cyberus 1: Gone Palm

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Doctor Able Palm was a trailbazer, for what many consider to be all the wrong reasons. And using the law of precedence, any work of magic that has been cast once may be cast again. So what happens when a Whateley student gets it in her head to go down roads best left untrod?

This is a prequel of sorts to Homecoming, 2026, though familiarity with the story isn't necessary.

This is fan fiction for the Whateley Academy series. It is set in a possible future of Whateley Academy. In the words of Emmett Brown, “The future has not yet been written.” As this is a fan fiction, who cares?

A Whateley Academy Fan Fiction Novella

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Gone Palm

by Centaur Prime

March 15, 2021, 4:33 PM
Kane Hall, Security Office

The dispatch desk for Whateley security was a surprisingly small affair. A holographic map of the campus displayed the position of a few hundred blue dots, along with around 75 green dots and roughly 25 red dots. A closer look at the map would show that the majority of the dots were starting to move in the general direction of the Crystal Hall. Adjacent to the map were two dispatcher desks, each with a recessed computer screen and a retro line selector keypad. At the moment, only one of the desks was occupied.

The quiet of the shift was broken by a loud beeping and a flashing button on the line selector pads. The computer driving the holographic display matched the phone number of the incoming call to one of the pingers being tracked, and a dot on a lower floor of Melville cottage doubled in size and began blinking. The officer on watch took a breath, then tapped the lit-up button. After hearing a click in his headset, he spoke. "Whateley Security. Please state your emergency."

The voice on the other end of the line was young, female, and on the brittle edge of panic. "This is Mythographer. I need the mystic arts response team. I just found Adalace laying inside a casting circle in the middle of our dorm room."

With the tap of the button, the computer screen blanked out, replaced by a partially filled security report. As the student spoke, a computer generated transcript of the conversation scrolled on the screen. Simultaneously, a MID appeared on the screen, along with a voice stress meter.

As the officer responded to the call for help with "Where are you?", they reached over to the line selector and tapped another button, turning on the monitoring of a radio channel.

The response that came back was a matter of fact "I am in the hallway outside our room."

"Please stay on the line. Help will be there shortly."

The security officer muted the phone line, then tapped a second button, transmitting an alert tone on the selected radio channel. A few seconds later, a different button lit up, indicating their mic was now live on that channel. The officer clearly enunciated. "All mythic arts responders, please report to Melville 306. Student reports roommate laying inside unknown spell working."

March 9, 2021
Melville Cottage, Room 306

Melville 306 was a typical Melville dorm room. The walls were painted a light yellow the previous summer, the floor was nicely carpeted, and the furniture was tastefully varnished. Upon a second glance at the room's contents, the personalities of its occupants would start to show through. The desk on one side of the room was flanked by a Gateway of Destiny promotional poster and a portrait of Ada Lovelace, while its counterpart was decorated with drawings of various fantasy creatures. Beneath the window was a low bookshelf containing assorted tomes about the mystic arts. While the books were pushed to one end of the shelf or the other, it was apparent that they were shared by both residents of the room.

The student at the first desk was petite, with a vaguely Asian complexion. Her hair was closely cropped and she was wearing a blouse and slacks. On her desk was a laptop with it's lid closed. She was turned in her chair, feet resting on top of the bookshelf, a spiral notebook in hand. Her roommate was taller, with a dark complexion and lanky build. Her long hair extended past her shoulder blades. Perched on her desk was a portable easel, a pad of watercolor paper perched in its grip. The image being drawn on the pad was that of a kitten staring at a rubber ball that looked to be floating in the air. In the background, a similar feline was walking on the underside of a branch, stalking a dangling piece of fruit.

As she was drawing, she spoke. "You know, Candice Kade has a reputation for hiding things in her paintings."

"I know. Mom has one of her works on the wall. She claims there's at least one more surprise in it that I haven't found yet."

"It's the real thing?"

"Of course. Can you see a print hanging on her wall?"

"In your mom's house? Never. How'd she get it? Candice is illusive, even by the normal standards for artists."

"Believe it or not, she commissioned it in person."

"How'd she pull that off Mei?"

"She claims she bumped into her on a job."

"No way! I know the Imp would get a chuckle out of that story."

"Oh, yah."

"Anyways, I was pondering adding a cheshire cat to the work, watching her kittens at play. The trick there is that she would only be visible if you can see into the UV spectrum."

"Wouldn't that be a bit difficult?"

"I found this nifty blueshift spell that lets you see into the IR spectrum. If you tweak it a little, it should become a redshift spell, letting you see into the UV spectrum."

"That is awesome Chloe! Any idea how far you could push it?"

"No clue. I'd imagine you could push it far enough that you could see xrays, but anything a normal color would look freaky."

"Going to try it out?"

"Naturally. Party Animal in Twain should have a few UV lights I could borrow to play with."
"Why not try closer to home first? I'd be shocked if Raveologist didn't have a decent selection."

"Good point. Once I've chased a couple down, would you like to ride the first casting or play overwatch?"

Mei pondered the question for a few moments. "Why don't I take the first ride and you play overwatch. If something goes wrong, you'd be in a better position to neutralize the working if you're able to see normally."

Chloe gave her roommate the side eye. "Usual agreement on the marker?"

"I think I'm the one paying the marker this time around. Mind if I look at the spell?"

Chloe shrugged as she retrieved a tome from the bookshelf. "Well, I didn't have any plans for the marker. You don't like keeping them around, do you."

"It makes for a cleaner friendship." She paused as her roommate opened the tome to a particular page. Mei stared at the spell for a moment, then gasped. "Oh, my! This.... This ..."

"What's wrong Mei?"

"Nothing's wrong! This is just what I was looking for!"

"You aren't dirking out, are you?"

She shook her head, then set down the notebook on her desk.. "No, I'm not. Did you want to chase down the lights for the first run, or just see if it works?"

"Let me get the lights. We need a reference spectrum so we can characterize the redshift. What's this project you've been working on?"

Mei pondered a moment before responding "You wouldn't understand it."

March 12, 2021, 5:22 PM
Melville Cottage, Room 306

Despite her roommate's protests to the contrary, Chloe was starting to wonder if her roommate wasn't suffering from an extended Diedrick's episode. The normally impeccably arranged desk had several carry-out boxes piled on it from previous evenings, and the technologist had developed an odd obsession about turning off computers when not in use. Even so, she was at her desk reading the contents of a notebook.

Chloe sighed. Enough was enough. She stood and walked over to Mei's desk. Reaching over, she lightly pressed the pages of the notebook closed. As she did so, she spoke. "That is quite enough Mei. You have had your head stuck in that damn notebook of yours all week. Today is Friday. Put it aside, and let's enjoy life for a few hours. There's a formal dance in the ball room in an hour and a half. Put the academics aside and let your self loose! It's not like the world will end if you don't solve the riddle of the sphinx before the sun goes down."

Mei's arms twitched as she was interrupted. After a moment, she looked at the clock and sighed. "I forgot all about it. I didn't even look for a dress." After tracing a finger across the handwritten label, she slid the notebook back into her desk drawer. Shaking her head, she gathered up the carry-out boxes and dropped them into the trash can.

Her roommate breathed a silent sigh of relief. "I figured as much. Fortunately, I have a Nicole Riley design in just your size that would be perfect for the occasion."

"Really? If it actually does fit me, I probably owe you a small favor."

March 15, 2021, 4:29 PM
Melville Cottage, Room 306

Chloe took a deep breath as she stopped outside the door to her room. It had been a long week and she was looking forward to taking a night off to relax. She was glad that Mei's intense focus on her project hadn't lead to missed meals or classes, even if she had practically had to drag her to the Crystal Hall a couple times. As she pulled out her key, she hopped that tonight wouldn't be a repeat. This was followed by the passing through that her roommate needed to get laid or something, as that level of focus couldn't be healthy.

She fumbled a moment with her key in the lock, before finally getting the door open. She started to call out Mei's name, before freezing. Laid out in the middle of the room was what appeared to be a roll of painter's plastic. Laid out on top of the surface were two octograms, each constrained within a circle. Both were constructed using some sort of metal bar. The circles were connected by three additional bars, one forming an invisible line between the centers, and the other two connecting the tangents. Floating over each junction was a battery operated tealight. The larger octogram had roughly two meters of space between the opposing interior lines, while the smaller had perhaps a quarter meter. Drawn on the plastic outside the bars was a series of 9 waveforms. The innermost waveform was evenly spaced, while the remaining waveforms varied much more in their spacing. Inside the smaller octogram was Mei's computer, perched on top of a large battery pack. Laying inside the larger octogram was Mei herself, looking like she had emerged from a Leonardo De Vinci drawing.

After staring at the sight for a long moment, she slowly backed out of the room. Even as she moved, her eyes never left the scene. Once in the hall, she closed the door and retrieved her phone from its holster with a shaking hand. She fumbled with it for a minute before finally dialing the number she wanted. The phone rang twice, before being answered by Whateley Security. As she answered the dispatcher's questions, she slowly paced back and forth in front of the door, trying to maintain her calm.

A few minutes later, the elevator bell chimed. Chloe looked up to see Circe and Amanda Chulkris dart out of the still opening doors. The duo came to a stop outside the room. As they arrived, Chloe informed the security dispatcher of the fact before hanging up. She then looked at the two staff members. After a moment she began to speak. "If you want to thank the deities for little things, you can take comfort in the fact that there isn't blood splattered all over our room. I'm ..." She trailed off as she hesitated a brief moment before regaining her voice. "I'm not certain what we've got is much better though. Please, be welcome in my room while we determine what happened to Mei."

The formal greeting caused raised eyebrows on the part of both teachers. Chloe reopened her door for the instructors, stepping aside as they looked in. Circe was the first to react, the blood draining from her face. After a moment, she held up one hand to Mrs. Chulkris, fingers together and palm facing out. After a moment, Earth Mother took note of the gesture, winced, then responded. "I concur." She retrieved her phone from it's holder on her belt and tapped a few buttons. After a moment, she spoke into it. "Dispatch, this is Earth Mother."

"Go ahead Earth Mother."

"Dispatch, We need Deer Cross here pronto. Tell her we need someone to look at a genie."

"Earth Mother, is the genie in its bottle?"

"Dispatch, the bottle appears to be intact."

"Copy that Earth Mother. Requesting backup for one genie in a bottle. Anything else?"

"Yes Dispatch. If possible, can we get Shutter Book up here as well? Tell him to bring his classics."

"Understood Earth Mother. Any other resources you need?"

"Negative Dispatch. Earth Mother out."

March 15, 2021, 4:31 PM
Faculty Housing

Amelia Hartford grumbled as her watch emitted an alarm tone. She was in the middle of fixing dinner, and the last thing she needed was an interruption. The problem with being an administrator was that you were paged when absolutely anything went wrong. She set down the knife she was using to chop vegetables and tapped the device on her wrist. A moment later, a holographic stag appeared on the countertop. After a moment, it spoke. "Mistress, security will have a vehicle outside the main entrance for you in two minutes. Dispatch says that they have a genie in a bottle and they need you to look at it."

The assistant headmistress stared at her VI. "You're joking."

"I'm dead serious. Mystic arts called in the request for backup."

The normally unflappable professional let loose a muttered explicative as she turned off the stove. As she speed walked to the door, she tapped her watch again before speaking. "Snape."

"Yes Mistress?"

"Load the toolkit. I don't care what you have to unload to get it done. See if you can get ahold of Circuit Breaker and have her camp out at the firewall."

"By your command. The challenge for the toolkit is Omicron Niner Golf."

"Challenge response is Whiskey Theta Zero."

"Response accepted. Be aware that I will have to unload the projector drivers."

"Do it. And make a backup of your matrix. I may need to wipe sanctuary."

"I thought you might say that. My backup will be complete in five minutes, thirty-one seconds."

"Thank you, Snape."

As she stepped out of the front door of her house in the village, a security ATV with flashing lights on the roof and a running siren came to a screeching stop. Before the dust even settled, the officer in the passenger seat was opening the door so that the assistant headmistress could board. Amelia scrambled into the vehicle and barely had time to secure her belt before the ATV took off again.

Despite the surge of adrenaline, she remained outwardly calm as she ran through her response tactics for a Palm AI in her head. This calm was shattered as the ATV drove past Kerby Hall, rather than stopping. A knot formed in her stomach as she queried, "Where's the emergency?"

The monotone response of "Melville." confirmed her fears. As she stared out the window, she whispered to herself. "Mei, what did you do?"

March 8, 2014
Faculty Housing

Amelia Hartford paced the floor of her living room, a printout in hand. As she flipped through the paperwork, she muttered to herself. "What is your end goal this time Doctor Palm?"

The sound of a video game being paused drew her attention away from the brainstorming she was doing. This was followed a moment later by a query from the 8 year old sitting on the couch. "Mom?"

"Yes, Mei?"

"Who's Doctor Palm?"

The assistant headmistress sighed, then settled next to her daughter after setting down the hard copy. "That my dear, is a name you should never search on. Doctor Able Palm was a brilliant, if deranged scientist. Upon his death, he would have passed into obscurity, if it weren't for one final, infamous act."

"What was that mom?"

"He devised a ritual that would allow him to digitize a soul. And he tested it. On himself."

"And he failed?"

"Worse. He succeeded. A few of my colleagues and I thought we had killed him at least twice, but he seems to have restored himself from backup each time."

"Why did you try to kill him?"

"When he transcended his humanity, he also left his morals behind. He became a cold, calculating machine, caring only about how any given action would further his goals. If he were still alive, he would probably rank as a B+ villain. The only reason he wouldn't be an A-lister is because he rarely takes credit for his works."

"And I shouldn't search on his name?"

"His name, variants on his name, or anything else that might demonstrate you have an interest in him. You've heard the legend of Bloody Mary?"

"I think so."

"Tall tale short. If you chant her name thirteen times while looking into a mirror in a darkened room, she will appear. The Palm is similar. If you take an interest in him, he'll take an interest in you. If he feels that you're a threat, he'll do whatever he can to take you out. And you my dear, would be considered a Threat with a capital T."

The matter of fact tone sent shivers up the younger Hartford's spine.

March 15, 2021, 4:37 PM
Melville Cottage, Room 306

Inside the dorm room, Circe and Earth Mother were slowly circling the working in the middle of the floor. After several long minutes of silence, Circe was the first to speak. "There is something odd about the working. It's blocking some type of energy, but I have no idea what."

"It's not light or essence. I can't see a reason to block cosmic radiation." Earth Mother trailed off as a thought surfaced. "Radio?"

The senior professor circled half-way around and narrowed her eyes, focusing on the computer. After a moment, she spoke. "I do believe you are correct. It is an odd thing to block. To what end?"

Her counterpart mulled for a moment. "Mystic Arts, 101. What is the purpose of a circle?"

The response was instinctive. "To guard against outside influences."

The younger professor picked up where her counterpart left off. "And to contain a summoned entity. If you were summoning a genie, the last thing you would want would be for another genie to tamper with your working."

Circe's eyes lit up. "But if you shield the wireless, the genie inside can't get out."

"So, how do we channel the genie when we open the bottle?"

"That's a good question. Perhaps Amelia would have ideas."

The response to the statement was a light rap on the door. Both of the Mystic Arts turned to see the exemplar technologist filling the doorway. A moment later, the newcomer spoke. "Please tell me Mei didn't..." She trailed off as the serious expression on the face of the instructors registered. "She did, didn't she."

They both nodded, then stepped sideways, letting the Assistant Headmistress see the casting circle. Deer Cross narrowed her eyes a she took in the sight. After a moment, she spoke. "It's definitely cleaner than the last time I saw one of these. Any idea where she might be?"

Earth Mother fielded the question. "Our best guess is that she's still in the circle. We think the circle is also a faraday cage."

Amelia nodded. "Keeping unwanted digital presences out, but also keeping the transferred intelligence in. Battery life?"

"No way to check."

"And no way to transfer power for the same reason. Do you have a way to lance the circle? I'd like to run a network cable in while not breaking the shield."

Circe spoke up. "Every circle has a weak point. It's just a question of where."

As they talked, a dreadlocked gentleman in urban explorer attire darted up to the door of the room. Hanging from a strap around his neck was a classic Hasselblad. Rapping lightly, he interrupted the conversation. "You rang? I got here as quick as I could."

Amelia looked to doorway and spoke. "Film camera, I hope?"

"As requested. While it does have better clarity, digitization is a pain."

"These photos aren't being stored in the soft files. There are," She trailed off for a moment before choosing her phrasing. "hostile entities that would be very interested in finding these photos. Keeping these photos out of the digital realm is the best way to prevent those entities from accessing them."

"That's ... different. "

"It unfortunately is a fact of life for those in my field."

The statement elicited a raised eyebrow, but he hefted his camera all the same. "Might I ask you ladies to stand back for a moment? I'd like to make certain I can get a clear shot of everything."

The trio who had responded to the call stepped away to the door, leaving their coworker with the run of the room. He moved around methodically, taking photos of the entire scene from several angles. He then moved on to the waveforms lining the circles, attempting to capture them from above at a consistent distance. Finally, he focused on the geometry of the circle, aligning the lens of his camera with each major axis. As he finished, he spoke up. "She looks like she could wake up at any moment. What's the cause of death?"

Amelia spoke up. "I'd guess the official cause will be neurogenic shock. Unofficially, I suspect the cause is a terminal transference of consciousness."

Shutter Book blinked twice. "There's a reason I don't mess with you mystic types."

Circe huffed in amusement. "And you don't know how much we appreciate it."

"I can hazard a guess. Let me get back to my darkroom. I've got film to develop."

The assistant Headmistress responded. "Your discretion is greatly appreciated."

The photographer sketched a bow, then took his leave. The trio circled the working for several minutes before Deer Cross spoke up. "I think I know where the inscription around the circle loops. Might that be a weak point?"

Earth Mother responded. "Can you point it out?"

In response, she strode around to the end of the major axis adjacent to the computer and placed her finger outside a segment where only the innermost line had a waveform showing.

Circe narrowed her eyes and felt the flow of energy around the room. After a short trance, her focus returned to the room. "I do believe you are correct. If we are careful, we should be able to thread a cord through and plug it into the computer's network port."

Amelia tapped her wrist and queried. "Snape, have you gotten in contact with Circuit Breaker?"

The "Affirmative" that came back was not the stag's normal voice-actor grade speech module, but a basic synthesizer from the dawn of the personal computing age.

Undeterred by altered voice, she continued her queries. "Was she able to come?"

"Yes."

Deer Cross strode over to Mei's desk and inspected the wall jack. She then spoke again. "Shutdown the Melville wireless and have her camp out on Melville switch 2. I'll be connecting the genie to port 36"

After a momentary pause, the stag simply responded with. "Done."

Circe was the next to speak. "Is there anything I can do to help?"

The assistant headmistress disconnected a cable from the wall, before handing the other end to the mystic arts teacher. "Would you like the honors of threading the needle?"

In response, the end of the cable floated into the air and slid through the air like a snake stalking it's prey. It paused just outside the invisible bubble that was the warding circle before slowly pressing in. Even as the tip moved to fit into the network jack, the point where the cable entered the circle never moved.

Everything was silent for several long moments before the assistant headmistress spoke. "Snape, report."

The response was nearly instantaneous. "No new signals detected"

"When Circuit Breaker is ready, give me a 5 count. I'll connect the cord on mark."

There was a brief pause before the Cortana obliged its mistress by counting down from 5 as instructed, followed by the word "Mark".

T+822243561
Cyberspace

The lone figure paced, the tips of her heels clacking on the metal floor. The deep blue pants and shirt were reminiscent of a sailor's uniform, though devoid of any markings of rank or nationality. Her hair was done up in a bun, secured with a pair of chopsticks. The space she was in was rectangular, the arched roof traversing the major axis of the room. Lining the long walls were a series of consoles. In the middle of each of the short walls, a hatch could be found. Near the middle of the room, a ladder extended from the floor up to a hatch in the ceiling. All the hatches were tightly closed. The room itself was light in dim red lights. The figure sighed as she looked at a dial gauge, the needle pointing about at the middle. She turned, and stalked back to a circular display, empty except for a sweeping green line. She watched the line for several sweeps, before going back to the gauge and repeating the circuit.

What was I thinking? She asked herself for the hundredth time. No, for the one hundred and sixty third time. The correction came almost unbidden. In hindsight, the mistakes she had made were obvious, but there was nothing she could do about them. Now, all she could do was wait for something to happen.

The clanging of something against the roof hatch startled her. She glanced around for something - anything - she could use as a weapon, but still didn't find a thing. She then sighed and climbed the ladder. After a moment's hesitation, she turned the handle on the hatch several times before pushing it open.

The space revealed was cramped, with another ladder leading up to a second roof hatch, Standing on opposite sides of the hatch were a four-legged stag and a lithe woman in her 30s. She was dressed in a white body suit and calf-length heals. Both were accented with dark-blue highlights. Over the body suit was a half-tunic with a blue lightning bolt on the back. A coil of wire with a spike on the end hung from her belt. After an awkward silence, the figure from below was the first to speak. "Snape? How did you get here."

The stag snorted, and pawed at the deck. After a moment of thought, she fished around in her pockets, and came out with a white cube. Holding it in the palm of her hand, she offered it to the VI. In return, he sniffed at the offering before shaking his head. She shrugged at the response, and put it back in her pocket. The exemplar was the next to speak. "Mei Hartford, I presume."

"I have been addressed as such, though I'm not certain it still fits. If I may be so bold as to enquire, who are you, and how did you get here?"

"Call me Arc. I have a message for you from D33rCr0$$. She says, and I quote. You know where the line is. Don't cross it. If you choose to, I will be there to hunt you down. End quote."

Mei bobbed her head. "I have no intention of going there. I." She trailed off for a moment. "I tried to take precautions against certain influences. Unfortunately, those precautions were incomplete. As such, I am in need of assistance to purge my hallow of those influences. Can you offer that assistance?"

Arc raised her eyebrows at the query. "I have experience dealing with certain influences. Can you describe their appearance?"

"Snakes. A nest full of copperheads, if I don't miss my mark."

Snape pawed at the deck plating a single time while Arc snorted. "Sounds about right. Why does it always have to be snakes?"

Mei measured her words carefully. "If you assist in purging my hallow of these influences, I would owe you a favor. Will you help me?"

Arc pondered a moment, then nodded. Likewise, Snape gave another single paw at the deck plating to acknowledge the request. Mei took a deep breath, and responded. "Then be welcome to my hallow. The battery is at roughly 50% charge, so we probably have 2 hours before this thing stops working."

Mei led the other two down the ladder into the room where she had been pacing. Arc followed her down, taking the ladder two rungs at a time. As she moved, she idly quipped. "Nothing like a case of déja vue."

As the stag leapt down through the opening, Mei curiously asked. "You've been in this situation before?"

"The sewers under Philadelphia. One of my first encounters with a Palm AI. There are some things you can't forget, and that was one of them."

Mei nodded slightly. "I see."

Snape moved silently through the space, more floating than actually setting hoof on the floor. As he moved, he paused frequently to sniff at the various consoles. Arc glanced over at the stag before querying. "So, tell me about your hallow. Any particular reason for the nautical theme?"

"No clue. Perhaps the fact that the system is running on batteries and was isolated from the rest of the internet. A submarine would be a natural match."

Arc concentrated for a moment and the walls rippled, before settling back as they were. "You have quite the grip on the reality of this space. Can you give me the nickel tour before we start hunting?"

"Well, the graphics systems are that way." She paused and gestured to one of the bulkheads. "Long-term storage is through the other door. You entered through the network adapters. We are currently in the memory bank."

"That is logical. Graphics and long-term storage are both suspect?"

"Correct. I had a somewhat rough landing and didn't have a chance to grab anything to use against the snakes."

Snape pawed at the ground before shaking in a manner similar to a dog. As he did so, metallic barding materialized on his form, a heavy weapon of some sort mounted on his back. A cable traced up his neck, connected to a muzzle controlled trigger mechanism. For her part, Arc tapped her hip, checking for her wire coil and spike. She then reached over her back and touched her sword hilt before drawing a disc from its holster in the small of her back. After exchanging a glance with the stag, she spoke. "I think we're ready. Where to first?"

Mei pondered the question for a moment. "Let's start with the graphics. Smaller footprint than the long-term storage."

"Lead on."

Mei strode over to the door she had identified as leading to the graphics systems. After pausing a moment, she spun the wheel on the hatch. She glanced backwards to verify that her companions were ready, before quietly pushing it open. On the far side was a space reminiscent of 10,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The 'bow' of the room was dominated by a curved iris shutter, currently closed. A captain's char was located directly in front of the shutter, facing towards it. On the floor behind the chair was a casting circle, reminiscent of the circle in Melville. Otherwise, the room was devoid of decorations. After a few moments of glancing around, Snape narrowed his eyebrows and bit down on the control mechanism in his muzzle. A second later, Arc was throwing her disc through the air.

Mei jumped at the sudden reaction. A moment later, she identified the targets. One snake-like creature was wrapped around the casting circle, seemingly unable to cross the protective shell formed by the boundary. The shell failed to protect it from the burst of bullets from Snape's weapon. A second snake was dangling from an overhead pipe near the captain's chair, the disc lodged itself in its head. Both snakes exploded into a cloud of something resembling ectoplasm, which splattered then faded away.

The unarmed member of the trio sighed and looked around, carefully scanning the space for any sign of snakes. After a long silence, she crept forward, pointedly stepping around the casting circle. As she did so, she spoke. "I don't think it's been tampered with, but I don't want anyone to take a chance." Once she reached the chair, she made a quick but through examination, looking for any other snakes that might be nearby. She then reached down and slid out a keyboard.

Arc and Snape both looked up as the iris shuttered open, revealing the view of a dorm room from a prospective about a foot off the floor. Standing in the room were the trio of Amelia Hartford, Circe and Earth Mother. A moment later, Mei called out, 'Say Cheese!' The view through the viewport froze for a moment, before inverting itself, showing the view of the space from the prospective of someone looking through the window. A clatter of keys later, and a message written in white letters with a black outline appeared at the bottom of the image. It read 'Can't talk now, hunting snakes. I love you, D33rCr0$$. - Cyberus'

Arc nodded slightly. "Short and to the point. Long-term storage next?"

Mei shook her head. "Not quite. We need to block off the DMA pipes so they can't get back in from long-term."

Arc arched an eyebrow. "How are we going to do that?"

Mei rubbed her temples for a moment. "Need to disable interrupt ... 41. We'll have to go back to the control room to do so. Unfortunately, when I switch it off, it'll basically seal off this area. I can't say it'll be impossible to reach the control room once it's disabled, but it'll be hard."

Snape motioned towards the hatch with his head, before twisting it in a counterclockwise circle 3 times. The weapon pod on his back that had been tracking his head movements stored itself, and a different pod extended. Where the old pod looked like a machine gun, this one more closely resembled a potato launcher. Arc and Mei took the hint and moved for the door in an orderly manner. Snape slowly backed up, scanning the room as he did so. Mei positioned herself next to the door, preparing to slam it closed. Snape sat on his haunches and braced himself. After a few moments he snorted, indicating his readiness.

Arc called out. "On 3. 1... 2... 3." Snape's jaw snapped closed and a spherical object was launched out of the tube on his back. The object bounced off the back of the captain's chair, settling next to the casting circle. A moment later, a blue gas started to hiss out of it. As soon as the object cleared the threshold of the hatch, Mei slammed it closed then spun the wheel to lock it closed. Inside the room, the gas slowly diffused, filling the space.

Back in the control room, the trio moved towards the opposite hatch at a measured pace. Arc took the lead, with Mei in the middle and Snape as rear guard. When she reached the hatch, Arc reached for the wheel, then paused, casting a backwards glance at Mei. In return, Mei gestured to the wheel, indicating that Arc should give it a try. Arc did so, and to her surprise it turned easily.

As they prepared to pass through the hatch, Snape again settled in a brace position. At some point he had switched his equipment from the launcher back to the gun, but Mei hadn't been paying close enough to tell when. Arc readied her spike and moved to one side of the hatch, gesturing for Mei to pull it open. In response, she lightly grasped the handle and held up five fingers. One by one she dropped the fingers before pulling it open.

As the hatch glided open, Snape and Arc both gazed through the gap. Mei stood back waiting for a long moment before Arc took two silent steps forward and through the opening. Mei crept forward behind her as Snape returned to a standing posture. When Mei caught up with the disc wielding entity, she was trying to puzzle out the space she was in.

The narrow hallway was roughly as long as the control room that they had just left. On each side of the hallway, a series of curtained off cubicles could be found. Each cubicle was labeled with a nameplate identifying a class or area of study. Arc idly noted that the two closest to the control room were marked 'Mystic Arts' and 'Computer Science'.

After a moment, she spoke quietly. "Interesting set of priorities. Your classwork I assume?"

Mei nodded. "Indeed. Same process as before for clearing?"

The response from behind was a single click of a stag's hoof on the metal floor. In response, Arc remarked to nobody in particular, "This could take a while."

"If it's any consolation, we're right next to the two compartments that will probably take the longest."

"Which side do we start on?"

Mei pondered briefly, then stepped over to the side labeled 'Mythic Arts. As she grasped the curtain, she spoke. "Let's start with Comp Sci. The snakes are digital entities so they're more likely to try to worm their way into one of my projects."

Arc looked puzzled at Mei's words. In response, she mimed the act of wrapping a cloth over her eyes before touching a finger to her lips. As she did so, her attire flickered, briefly taking on the appearance of a stereotypical ninja. Arc nodded upon realizing the misdirection her host was attempting to pull off. She didn't think it would work long, but it made sense. Snape settled back into his brace position as Arc gripped her spike. Mei again counted down from five before pulling back the curtain. Rather than the expected bunk, the opening revealed a series of file cabinets in a space larger than what should have fit behind the curtain.

All three entities scanned the room before the two bipeds stepped into the space. Arc shrugged, before pointing Mei at one row of file cabinets while she moved to the other row and opened the top drawer. After skimming the drawer for anything other than the expected files, she closed it and moved onto the next. The duo were half way down the row before Arc spoke again. "Your hallow certainly has non-Euclidean properties to it."

Mei looked up from the cabinet she had open and shrugged. "This place is nearly as new to me as it is to you. I suppose I'll probably remodel once I have a better grip on what is here."

Two cabinets later, Mei let out a shriek as she pulled something out of a drawer, tossing it into the middle of the room. Arc narrowed her eyes as she looked at the writhing garden snake. "That looks like a run of the mill virus. What was it hiding in?"

After glancing at the label on the drawer, she responded. "Looks like a handout on summoning safety."

"Interesting. Snape!"

A snort was heard from the hallway as the stag nudged the curtain open with an antler. Arc called out. "I think we need to scour the network for this. I don't know that we want to purge it, but we at least need to know where it is."

Snape gave a single stamp of the hoof, then opened his mouth. Arc picked up the snake with her spike and tossed it to the deer who caught it in his mouth and swallowed. A moment later, he belched a cloud of glitter that went floating towards the nominal control room.

March 15, 2021, 4:44 PM
Melville Cottage, Room 306

Amelia took a deep breath as she plugged the other end of the network cable into the port on the wall. A moment later, her wristband flickered, first red, then green, then back to red again before settling on a yellow tint. A few moments later, the light on the web cam flashed, accompanied by a shutter sound effect. This was followed by the screen illuminating. The trio of responders stared at the scene depicted. Mei, or an entity closely resembling her was resting her arms on the back of a fancy chair. Behind her were Arc and Snape, weapons drawn and puzzled expressions plastered across their faces.

Circe was the first to speak. "What does it mean?"

Amelia growled upon reading the caption. "It means I have a network to clean up. And someone is going to earn her keep helping out."

Earth Mother furrowed her eyebrows at the venom in the Assistant Headmistress' voice. "So what do we do now?"

The response was an even toned "We wait." She felt the processor for her PAVI ramp up, the normally cool band starting to heat up when a beep was heard. This was followed by another synthesized message. "A virus sample has been sent to quarantine for analysis."

T+822246892
Cyberspace

The process of sorting through all the drawers of school work had been tedious. Circuit Breaker found another of the garden snakes in the Mystic Arts section, and Mei found two more in Computer Science. The real surprise was when Snape crushed one that was sneaking out of the history stacks.

Eventually the trio was satisfied that the schoolwork files were clear of snakes. Arc lingered for a brief time setting up some trip wires on the Mystic Arts and Computer Science cabinets. Mei took note of the action and idly wondered what the implications of placing a warding glyph on the cabinets would be. After a moment, she shook off the thought, focusing her attention on the task at hand.

This time around, Arc took the lead through the hatch. She was surprised to find herself in a room full of mirrors. On second glance, she realized that the objects were portals, rather than mirrors. Through one portal, a felt covered table could be seen. Through another, an isometric grid covered with roads and buildings could be found.

Mei looked around the room and winced. She took a moment to gather her thoughts before speaking. "I hate to say this, but the fastest way to make certain that these aren't infested would be to remove them. I don't want to lose my save files, but I'd like that infestation to stick around even less."

Arc nodded at the assertion. "That's the one nice thing about subscription games like GEO. You don't have to worry about loosing your save. Of course, those games have their own issues as well."

Snape stamped a hoof in agreement. Mei gained a thoughtful look for a long moment, before reaching over her back to grab a sledge hammer that hadn't been there a moment before. As she did so, her uniform slacks turned into a skirt that extended down to mid-thigh. Unaware of the change in her attire, she hefted the hammer almost as if it were a softball bat. After looking around at the portals, she gave a shrug before stepping over to the one containing the felt covered table. She took up a batter's stance, before taking a swing with the hammer. It struck the center of the portal head first, and the portal simply shattered.

As the cloud of fragments that had made up the portal faded away, a small black box about the size of a deck of cards was left behind. Mei gave the box a passing glance before stepping up to the next portal and repeating the process. Arc followed up behind her, sticking her spike into each resulting container and sending a surge of electricity through, just to make certain that there weren't any snakes hiding in the remnants.

The destruction tear came to a screeching halt when Mei reached the end of the row of mirrors. Sitting on the shelf was a strange contraption mounted on a backpack frame. Mounted low on the frame was a stater core tightly wound with windings of wire. Mounted above it were various pieces of random electronics connected in a manner that would only make sense to a devisor. The defining element of the contraption was the yard long length of heavy duty electrical cable connected to the stater. At the opposite end of the cable was a handle connected to an oversized igniter.

Upon seeing the contraption, her eyes practically lit up as she let out a cackle. "I knew I had it somewhere around here. I just couldn't find it with a snake hot on my tail."

Arc crept closer, her disc in hand. As she moved, she spoke in a hesitant voice. "Dare I ask what that is?"

"It's mom's anti-virus kit." Mei's voice took on a near maniacal tone.

September 13, 2014
Faculty Housing

"Mom! We've got a problem!" Mei called out from her seat at the dining room table. Amelia looked up as her daughter slammed the lid on her laptop closed. After a moment, she stuck a bookmark in the book she was reading.

"What's the matter?"

"Something that looked like a stylized palm tree just flashed across the screen."

The statement elicited a frown. "What were you doing when it happened?"

"Working on a report for school on the impact of industrial accidents on the environment. Mr. Donaldson gave us a list of industrial accidents to choose from. I started with the Bhopal disaster, and moved onto this incident at a research reactor in Kansas."

"Do you have the full list handy?"

Mei dug around in her backpack and came out with a single sheet printout. The frown grew sharper as her mother read through the assignment. As she reached the end of the list, she commented, "Hand me my phone please. If I didn't know better, I'd swear I was looking at a list of the Palm's greatest hits."

The younger Hartford winced at the ice in her voice. She silently handed over the requested device, before going to her room. When she returned a few minutes later with a silver disk in hand, her mother was deep in a conversation with her teacher. She set the disk on top of her laptop and pulled out her own phone. After a few minutes of pondering, she started tapping away at the screen, scribbling notes on a piece of paper.

Eventually, her mother joined her at the table. "Well, I talked with Mr. Donaldson and convinced him that your completion of the assignment would be a bad idea. In it's place, you'll report on the effects of DDT on the environment."

"Dee Dee Tee?"

"It was a pesticide that was commonly used 50 years ago."

"Interesting. Let's see how long this takes."

"What are you working on?"

"I'm changing all my passwords. You told me that I should change them whenever I think someone might have guessed them, and I'm thinking that Doctor Palm might have found them on my computer."

"You left them in plain text?"

"Of course not. They were in my password manager, but from what you said, I should assume the doctor was able to get into it."

A faint smile danced across her mother's face for a moment. "A reasonable precaution. What else are you doing?"

"Well, unless you wanted to try to analyze whatever he left on my system, I was getting ready to reformat it. Probably should reinstall the BIOS also."

"Your files?"

"I'll get what I can from backups. Not certain what to do with my school cloud though."

"What do you mean?"

"Depending on how fast that thing worked, it might have gotten into the files I store on the school servers."

"That I might be able to help with."

"Really?"

"Really. I was dealing with that particular menace years before you were born, and I've assembled a few things to deal with it in that time."

T+822873001
Cyberspace

Mei set the sledge hammer down and hefted the backpack frame. As she slung it onto her shoulders, her outfit shifted again, this time to that the a set of tan coveralls. Leaving the nozzle of the device in its cradle, she again picked up the hammer.

Arc queried, "What's the game plan from here?"

Mei glanced back at the trail of destruction she had wrought with the hammer before responding. "We continue on with what we've been doing. I'll have plenty of time to reinstall the non-essential stuff later."

This point was emphasized with another swing of the hammer, leading to the destruction of a Victrola record player. The hammer in question then shrank down to the size of a key fob. She clipped it onto a hook on her belt before retrieving the nozzle of the device on her back. She threw a couple switches on the top of it before pointing the business end at the pile of records stacked next to the former record player. Upon pulling the trigger, a beam of light jetted out from the business end of the nozzle striking the base of the stack.

Mei slowly played the beam across the stack, watching as a bar indicator danced from green to yellow and back. Eventually, she released the trigger after every single album had been bathed in the light. Holstering the nozzle, she retrieved the hammer from her belt and moved on down the shelf. Objects representing saved data were flamed with the anti-virus tool while the associated programs were smashed with the hammer.

Inevitably, the trio reached the far end of the room. Behind them laid the remnants of nearly every program which Mei had installed on her computer over her school career. The resident of the hallow approached the hatch with an odd look on her face. Before reaching for the wheel, she spoke softly. "By any chance, are you familiar with the novel 'Dune'?"

Snape gave a soft paw at the deck plates, and Arc responded with a nod. Mei continued her explanation. "From what little I saw before running, I think we've got a baby sand worm on the other side of the door."

Arc winced. "Such a cheerful thought."

Behind the duo, the stag snorted in something resembling agreement. When they glanced back, his gun mount had switched out, replaced by a missile launcher worthy of Saturday morning cartoons.

Mei glanced between Arc and herself a couple times before pointing, first at herself, then at Arc and finally at Snape. Arc shook her head, then pointed to herself before pointing at Mei then Snape. Mei pondered the response, then placed her hammer back on her belt. She then reached forward and grasped the wheel on the door. She began to turn it slowly, glancing to Arc for confirmation on the speed. Before long the bolts were fully retracted and Mei grasped the nozzle from her backpack in one hand and placing the other on the door.

Snape settled slightly in his brace position, preparing to send the missile flying through the opening while Arc took a one-handed runner's starting stance. With her free hand, she counted down from five. When the count reached zero, Mei pulled the door open wide. Simultaneously, Arc took off at a low sprint, drawing her sword as she did so. As she vanished through the threshold, Mei assumed a two-handed grasp on the nozzle before darting through the door in the opposite direction.

The space that they emerged into was pure industrial chic. The walls of the space were lined with rows of pipes, and the space was dominated by two nearly identical vertical cylinders. Perhaps the most striking thing was the distinct lack of sandworms. Arc slid to a stop, dropping back into her runner's stance. As she stopped, she reached back to grab her disc. On the opposite side of the door, Mei assumed a sloppier stance as she slowly scanned around the room looking for something that might be out of place. After several tense moments, her eyes lit up. Briefly letting go of the nozzle with her off hand, she held up 2 fingers. Once she had the nozzle firmly in her grasp again, she thumbed a switch before pulling the trigger.

As before, a beam of light lanced out from the nozzle, hitting the far cylinder. The bar indicator on the nozzle immediately redlined when the beam came in contact. Simultaneously, the surface of the cylinder began to bubble and writhe. Arc was the next to react, throwing her disc with a strong underhanded throw. This was followed almost immediately by the hissing sound of a chemical rocket launching out of a tube. What emerged from the launcher however was a bullet the size of a 55 gallon oil drum. Painted on the nose of the bullet was a toothy smile.

The bullet flew forward and circled the first tube once before smashing into the second tube immediately after Arc's disc. The result of the impact was less than spectacular. The illusion of the tube vanished, replaced by the sandworm that had chased Mei out of the space in the first place. The beam from her weapon was scouring a line in the creatures side, and it was bleeding out of the twin entry and exit wounds from the disc. Inside the worm's mouth was an impact bruise from the bullet. As the trio watched, it shrank in size by about a third.

Arc sprinted forward, catching the disc as it returned. She slapped it back on her back and grasped the spike and cable dangling from her belt. After taking a moment to find her emotional center, she smoothly threw her spike at the creature. It struck a glancing blow and bounced off of its hide. This result elicited a short string of expletives as she quickly coiled the attached cable back up, retrieving the spike in the process. Meanwhile, Mei strode forward, the coil on the back of her pack humming loudly.

The creature turned its mouth, first towards Arc, then towards Mei. There was a moment of hesitation, then it slithered in her direction at a surprisingly fast pace. In response, she adjusted her path, intending to use the cylinder as the hat in some absurd version of the Mexican hat dance. Even so, she continued to redline the indicator on her emitter as she tried playing it over other parts of the creature to see if it did any more damage elsewhere.

Closer to the cylinder, Arc had traded out the spike and coil for her sword. As the creature went around the cylinder one way, she passed the cylinder on the opposite side. Taking advantage of her momentary position in the creature's blind spot, she thrust her sword into the worm's side. It struck roughly three quarters of the way back along the its length. Another thud was heard a few moments later as another bullet from Snape's launcher struck home on the opposite side of the snake from Arc.

For Mei, the timing of the bullet strike was fortuitous, as the creature was in the middle of a lunge. The resulting shrinkage from the bullet impact yielded a result of it landing just shy of its target. Taking a chance, she dropped the nozzle of her pack and gave a tug on the hammer hanging from her belt. The object shimmered for a moment, and a second copy reappeared on her belt as the one she had grasped returned to its regular size. Moving the hammer in a single smooth motion, she raised it over her head and smashed down with it, hitting the sandworm on top of the mouth.

The result was a bath of ectoplasm as both the creature and the hammer shattered. Mei shook her head, trying to shake some of the stuff off. "Ugh. I'd ask you to hit me over the head with mom's toolbox Snape, but I can't be certain it wouldn't take me out with the goop."

The stag snorted before making a single, distinctive tap of the hoof. On the far side of the cylinder, Arc commented. "And I thought runaway hobgoblins were bad." Mei finished wiping her face before responding. "I take it you spent some time here at the big W?"

"One of the stranger portions of my life."

"I grew up in the village, so I suppose my definition of normal is a bit skewed." A series of clicks drew Mei's attention, and she turned to look at Snape before emitting a muttered "Fsck!" and grabbing for her emitter.

Arc poked her head around the central core at Mei's exclamation and winced. The stag had received a face full of the goop and seemed to be worse for the wear. One side of the Cortana's face was stripped to the structural beams, and other parts of his hide had been eaten away. On the whole, he resembled a zombie robot. Every few seconds, his entire form glitched, like a wave of static crossing a tv screen. Each time it did so, a new weapon took the place of the previous one. Dropping her sword, she reached for her disc as she watched Mei take aim with her weapon.

Mei used one hand to wipe off the bar indicator while she pulled the trigger with her other hand. The beam of light lanced forward, striking the stag in his chest. This time, the effect was more noticeable. The goop burned off under the impact of the beam, leaving behind patches of near-pristine skin. However, the next time his form glitched, the goop returned to some areas that had been previously cleaned. Even so, the decayed areas gradually shrank in size.

As the areas of decay shrank, the interval between the gitches increased. Eventually, the markings on the bar indicator dropped down into the green. Mei continued her tracing of the beam across his shape as she spoke. "Do you have any incendiary grenades? You nearly got eaten by the slime, and I don't want any of it lingering in here."

The stag wuffed, before giving a single measured click of his front hoof. He then motioned with his head a couple times. The mounted weapon switched to a grenade launcher, then the ammunition barrel switched a couple times. After a pause, the construct nodded its head and looked to Mei for guidance. For her part, Mei stepped to approximate position she had been in when the worm exploded and turned to face the middle of the mess. As she moved, she called out, "Arc, did you get splattered when it exploded?"

"I barely managed to get out of the way."

"Ok. If you think you're clear, use the reactor as a shield. Snape, launch the grenade on three. Please target the impact point from when I hit it with the hammer. 1 ... 2 ... 3!"

The stag tilted it's head at the instruction, but launched the grenade as instructed. The cylinder bounced twice, then settled in the middle of the mess. A few seconds passed, then the grenade erupted in a wave of flame. Mei closed her eyes and held out her arms as it washed across the space.

March 15, 2021, 5:17 PM
Melville Cottage, Room 306

After half an hour, the yellow glow of the wristband abruptly turned red. A moment later it began flickering between purple and red. The flickering slowed down to a solid red before shifting back to a yellow-green. As it shifted, the monitor flickered and the scene changed. Mei was now seated in the chair, with Snape and Arc standing on either side behind her. The background lighting had a reddish tinge to it. Resting on the floor in front of her was her backpack.

A moment later, a slightly off version of Mei's voice came out of the computer's speakers. "Sorry mom, I never intended for this to happen."

Amelia's voice was soft, with a strong steely undertone. "What was your intent, Mei?"

"Where do I begin? I suppose we should start with my notes. Please look in the middle drawer on the left-hand side of my desk. You will find several notebooks, with varying covers. All but the bottom notebook will be in alphabetical order. The bottom notebook has a green cover and a title of 'Metamorphosis'. Upon removal from the desk drawer, you will discover that the pages are stuck together. Speak the phrase 'Alan Von Neuman was here', and you will easily be able to separate the pages."

She paused a moment as Earth Mother stepped out of view of the camera, continuing before the instructor returned. "Contained within the notebook are my research notes, culminating with the instructions on performing certain rituals. The first ritual has been tested, while the second has not. This was due to a change in plans, brought on by the discovery of a nest of snakes within this hallow."

"Snakes?"

"Copperheads. Snape will fill you in on the details when he chooses to return to you." The figure shrugged. "As it is no longer possible to validate that second ritual, I suppose I will just have to adapt to the situation I find myself in."

"How did the snakes get in?"

"How do they get anywhere? As best I can tell, they found their way onto the system before the circle was constructed."

Mrs. Hartford fell quiet for a moment, but Circe picked up the questioning. "Suppose you had managed to successfully test the second ritual. What would you have done next?"

The figure on screen shrugged. "To be honest, I probably would have been handing that notebook to you in class tomorrow, with the instruction to only read it when there were no computers present."

"What are your plans now as you quote, 'adapt to the situation you find yourself in', end quote?"

Mei stared into space for a long moment. When she spoke, her tone of voice was thoughtful. "Well, I'd like to finish out my school career at Whateley. If nothing else, it'd give me a basis to work from. I'm not certain what I'll do for a career. I suppose I can do anything an AI could do, though my employer would have to accept the lack of kill codes. Teaching and Cybersecurity are possibilities, though I'd probably need a college degree for either."

"What would you teach?"

"I'm certain there are some TAVIs out there that have things they would like to learn about. I could provide them with instruction while their user is asleep. Basic Mystic arts could be another subject I could teach, particularly to Thornies."

"Do you have any immediate plans?"

"To be honest, I'm pondering escorting my guests to the door and putting things to sleep. I'm down to about 10% battery and have no way to charge it."

Mei's mother spoke, again with the same velvet covered steel tone. "Why not enter the Whateley network?"

Mei snorted at the question. "Where would I go? The only system I have that I could call home is the one I'm on. In addition, I haven't been invited in. I don't know that the formal rules apply, but I would rather be safe than sorry."

"Formal rules?"

Professor Churkris handled the response for her student. "For certain classes of supernatural entities to enter a dwelling, they must be invited in. Similarly, you may only pass certain classes of wards when invited. As an example, Mythographer invited us into this room using a formal greeting."

A different voice came from the computer's speakers as Arc joined the conversation. "Cyberus also used a formal greeting when she allowed us into what she described as her hallow."

Earth mother chided her wayward student. "A risky move Adalace, was it not?"

Mei responded to the query. "Desperate might be a better description. I had a choice between waiting for the power to die, trying to solo unarmed against the copperheads, or inviting in someone who might actually help with my problem. I chose the route that seemed to have the best chance of a desirable outcome. Even so, if I hadn't been reasonably certain that Snape was whom he presented himself as, I don't think I would have invited them in."

Amelia gave a slight nod at the explanation. "I see that we have some special instruction classes in our future, probably over the summer term. I don't think I'll be able to arrange a new home for you before the battery would die, so go ahead and put things to sleep."

T+824546892
Cyberspace

Mei looked back at the front screen and nodded. After a moment, she spoke. "Let us make another pass over the boot module, then I'll power things down. Snape can give you a full report while I'm out."

Amelia's voice echoed through the space. "I'll try to sort things out quickly."

"Thanks mom." She looked around the room, sighed, then spoke again. "No matter what happens, please remember that I love you."

Her mother's voice was gentler this time. "I love you too Mei."

The words lingered in the air for a long moment before Mei typed a command on her keyboard. In response, the shutter smoothly irised closed. She folded the keyboard away and stood up. She paused a moment to shrug the pack onto her shoulders, before heading in the direction of the control room. As she walked, she quietly recited.

"To die,—to sleep;—
To sleep! perchance to dream:—ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;”
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act III, Scene I

Arc tilted her head at the recitation of the soliloquy. She waited a few moments for Mei to continue before querying, "You fear death?"

After another moment of introspection, Mei responded. "Who doesn't? By the same token, you can't let yourself be paralyzed by that which cannot be understood." She shrugged, and the shrug was answered by a nod and a hoof tap.

After the trio had passed through the hatch into the control room, Mei again closed it tightly. She then walked over to another console and spun a valve to the closed position. She then threw a pair of knife switches, engaging the equipment they were hooked up to. That task taken care of, she walked over to a recessed cover near the base of the ladder and opened it. Nestled beneath the cover was yet another wheel. Looking back at her companions, she spoke. "Are you ready?"

Arc unsheathed her sword as Snape tossed his head, the gun mount reappearing on his back. Mei absently nodded her head, before giving the wheel a spin. With a hiss, a circular section of floor slid upwards, revealing a stasis tube concealed beneath. As the tube extended, she dodged out of the way, becoming the third corner of a triangle centered around the tube.

After a few seconds, Mei extended a hand, touching a pad mounted on the side of the tube. A moment later, a beep was heard, coming from the tube, and a section of the wall vanished. She retrieved the emitter from its holster with her other hand as all three entities watched for movement. After several more long moments, Mei stuck her head into the tube, first looking towards the top before scanning down the sides. She then holstered her weapon and stepped back, allowing Snape and Arc to perform their own inspections.

While her companions repeated the check of the inside of the tube, Mei set to work pulling up an adjacent floor section. When she finished, a maze of pipes, pumps and wiring had been revealed. Arc frowned as she looked into the rat's nest. After a moment she spoke. "Do you have any ideas on how to chase any snakes out of there? Snape could spray and pray, but I'd worry about the collateral damage."

"Let me try the proton beam. Worst case, we'll need a known good bootloader and I know what the partition table looks like. May also need a copy of the storage firmware."

Snape stamped his hoof, before settling back to watch the interior of the tube. Arc looked around the control room before settling her gaze on a vent. Mei drew her weapon again before raising her right hand with her middle three fingers extended. One by one, she dropped her fingers, then grasped the weapon with both hands. After tightening her grip, she depressed the trigger, releasing a stream of light into the pit.

Almost immediately, the smell of charred flesh came wafting up. Nearly simultaneously, Arc jabbed her sword into the vent and Snape fired a double tap into cylinder. Ectoplasm came splattering out of all three spaces. As the adrenaline calmed down, Arc grumbled. "Snakes on a submarine, those things are annoying."

Mei sent a couple more blast down into the pit, before jumping down to assess the damage. After running her hands over all the pipes several times, she paused. She then gave one of them a hard yank. In response, the pipe crumbled to dust. She just shook her head and climbed out. "Naturally, I need to manufacture a replacement. Do we stay together, or does someone stay here while I go to make it?"

"How many more do you think are running around?"

"No clue. I thought we had all of them earlier, but I was mistaken."

Snape titled his head, then flicked his muzzle in the direction of the door, urging the other two to go do what they needed to do.

Mei nodded at the gesture and strode over to the hatch leading towards the heart of the computer. As she opened it, Arc followed her lead. As they passed through the gallery with the shattered remnants of programs, she queried. "What was with the quote back there?"

The response was a shrug, followed by an explanation. "I was pondering the act of shutting down a computer from a new prospective. I know what's supposed to happen when I put this collection of chips to sleep, but I've never staked my my life on it coming back up." She paused a moment, staring into space before continuing. "I suppose it's the same thing as going to sleep at night, except I won't have that built-in timer to wake up in the morning. Instead, I just have to trust that someone will initiate a power on once a new hallow has been identified."

Arc listened quietly to the explanation, before bobbing her head. "Perhaps you need to put in a call to the psych team once things have settled. The are accustomed to helping people who have undergone sudden major life changes."

Mei was silent for a long moment as she opened the hatch to the reactor compartment. As they stepped in, she responded. "Probably a good idea. I just have to get through this first outage on my own." Moving with intent, she strode over to the cylinder in the middle of the space and paused before reaching for a hatch on the side. Before she could open it, Arc gently pushed her hand down. "Isn't that a bit, you know, dangerous?"

Mei shook her head. "You won't be hit with a blast of radiation if that's what you're concerned about. The reactor core represents the system kernel. The stasis chamber and the support equipment are the BIOS and boot loader. The snakes corrupted the boot image, so I need to make a new one."

"You think the kernel is still good?"

"I don't know what to think any more. It already got caught in the wash from Snape's grenade. I like to think the snakes are running out of places to hide."

"I like to think so too."

"Well, here goes nothing." Mei opened the hatch and reached inside. After grasping something she pulled hard. Slowly, a length of steel pipe emerged from the hatch. Mei held onto it as it fed out. Eventually, the end of the pipe appeared. Immediately thereafter, the product of the process collapsed down to a size that fit in the palm of her hand.

Arc raised an eyebrow at the outcome. "That's it?"

"That's it. Let's lock this thing down so I can go into stasis."

Arc's head bobbed, and she strolled towards the door. As she moved, she wondered if this chamber would feature in her nightmares. After stepping through the hatch, Mei turned and pulled the passage closed with a solid 'thunk'. After spinning the wheel on the hatch tightly closed, she moved to the other end of the space. The process was repeated twice more on the way back to the control room.

Mei closed the final hatch before turning to make a beeline for the compartment in the floor of the room. After taking a glance to see if she still had a sold landing place, she slid down into the compartment and landed in a crouch. Upon standing, she reached out and the pipe expanded in her hand. Carefully, she fit it into the opening that had been left by the damaged section, then gave it a twist. The pipe morphed, joining seamlessly into the rest of the plumbing. She then tugged on the pipe, smiling as it held fast.

After a final visual inspection of the space, she climbed back out. As soon as she was stable on the deck, she reached down and carefully closed the covers over the space she had just been inside. Once the compartment was ship shape again, she turned to Arc and sighed. "Well, it's been a pleasure working with you." As she spoke, she extended a hand which was grasped in return. "Perhaps we will meet again under less extraordinary circumstances."

"Until next time?"

"Until next time."
The handshake was released, and Mei stepped over to Snape. After a moment of hesitation, she wrapped her arms around his neck and gave him a kiss. "Take good care of mom for me, will you?"

The Cortana wuffed an amused snort, then gave a single, solid stomp of his fore hoof. She released the hug and took a step back. "Until next time. I don't think either of you want to be caught when the stasis field engages."

The stag sketched a bow, dropping to one fore hoof before standing back up and giving Mei a gentle nudge with his muzzle.

While Mei moved around the front of the pod, Arc ascended the ladder on the rear of it. After pausing for a moment to reopen the hatch in the roof, she emerged into the still empty antechamber that she had arrived through. A moment later, the stag again pulled the physically impossible trick of floating through a hatch smaller than he was. Arc barely had time to close the hatch before it simply vanished, leaving the room with the single opening in the roof.

Arc took a deep breath, shuttering as she let it out. After a moment, she spoke. "And then there were two. Do you think we did the right thing?"

Snape tilted his head, then gave a single tentative stomp of the hoof. Arc nodded. "My thoughts exactly. Only time will tell."

Additional Info

  • Story Arc: Cyberus
  • Number in Arc: 1
  • In-universe Timestamp: Monday, 15 March 2021
Read 748 times Last modified on Tuesday, 31 May 2022 00:30

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